Dana Tracking: A New Celtic Pastime

For years one of my pet obsessions has been to search for the Celtic equivalents of terms and concepts found in various indigenous cultures and mystical traditions around the world. Words that intrigue me are chi, Tao, mana, grace, beauty, chakras, kundalini, manitou, and so forth. My usual practice when I find such a term is to live and work with it for a good length of time to see if it “sticks” and has a similar, if not identical, “feel” to other indigenous terms. If it does, I start to share the term with others to see if it “works” for them as well.

Several years ago, not many by mythological time standards but already beginning to feel like myth, Frank MacEowen shared with me his insights into the term “dana” — a Celtic word that I had previously been using for some time, most often as it appears in the phrase “aos dana” (pronounced “ees dawna”). Aos dana is a difficult phrase to translate since the word dana and its root “dan” are rich in meanings, like so many words in Irish and Scots Gaelic, two sister languages that are among the oldest in the world. A broad definition of aos dana is “the people gifted with the art of poetry.” But each word — gift, art, poetry — has itself layers of mythic meaning in the Gaelic “dan.” And to add another level of mystery, these dana terms feel like a linguistic legacy from the oldest Celtic Mother Goddess whose name we know: Danu. Has she bequeathed to us hidden wisdom teachings in the various words that spring from her ancient name?

Then Frank deepened the mystery even more by telling me his recent understanding of the term dana, based on his own studies, meditations, and visionary experiences in Ireland’s megalithic landscapes. In brief, he suggests that dana is the Celtic equivalent of the Asian concept of chi or the Polynesian term mana. Frank’s discovery of this is a fascinating journey that he recounts in his new book The Spiral of Memory and Belonging: A Celtic Path of Soul and Kinship. He explains very convincingly that this interpretation of the term dana sheds light on one of the other classic mysteries in Irish lore: the strange battle between the invading Gaels and the Irish gods known as the Tuatha De Danann, the Tribes of the Goddess Danu. These fascinating beings have never seemed like your average gods — they lost the battle to mere mortals, after all! Then they rather contentedly retired from the visible world to become the Sidhe, the Shining Ones, the Faeries of later Celtic tradition. But these strangely supernatural people have never completely disappeared, and I’ll let you read Frank’s fascinating retelling of this ancient tale to discover the key to the mystery of who the Dananns really were — and are.

Dana can be used as the Celtic equivalent for indigenous terms like chi, mana, wakanda, and manitou — all of which, though they defy easy translation into English, mean something like the cosmic energy or life-force or spirit of life that enlivens this universe. This life-force can be hunted, discovered, harnessed, received, and shared with others for strength, healing, spiritual awareness, and as a profoundly intimate connection with Life Itself. And so, thanks to Frank, I have become a dana-tracker, a hunter of the Celtic life-force.

I find great comfort in the term dana. For one thing, it draws us back to the Spirit Mother who is the original “parent” of the later Celtic gods and goddesses and to the many gifts, arts, and teachings they personify. Furthermore, the term has a rich linguistic heritage, since “dan” and its derivatives refer to other important concepts in Celtic shamanism, namely, the values found in the Four Directions and the characteristics of the Three Cauldrons of the Soul. As dana-trackers we may find the term cropping up in other areas of Celtic spirit lore, if we keep alert and follow the signs. Because a term like dana is at once ancient and modern, we can see in its various meanings what we might call the “original instructions” of the early druids and spiritual teachers of the Celts. In recent years elders and medicine people of other indigenous folk have shared their own original instructions in the hopes that they might fall upon awakened ears — or maybe be the agents of awakening closed ears — and encourage wiser, more sacred ways to relate to the Earth. Perhaps we too can offer the original instructions of the earliest Celtic peoples to take their place alongside other indigenous wisdom teachings.

I truly believe that the world is at a major turning point, brought about primarily by certain dangerous trends in politics, technology, population density, and economic development. I refrain from going into details and specifics to keep this piece from sounding like a doomsday article. I am not a doomsayer by nature, and most readers already know the problems. But so many signs point to a growing feeling that our western way of life is not sustainable, and many people of good faith and good will are desperately looking for remedies or for instructions on how and where to take the next step. It seems that we do not have much time left to safeguard and strengthen the forces of life so that the coming generations will be able to live decent and satisfying lives in an environment that continues to provide life’s necessities. We need all the ancient wisdom we can find. We need the counsel of earlier societies who lived simpler, more Earth-centered lives, conscious of their responsibilities for maintaining the conditions of life.

We are talking here about the Life Force as it “mothers” new life — gestating it, birthing it, protecting and nourishing it, and sheltering it so that it will develop and take its place in the great shaping and reshaping of life that has continued so wondrously for millennia.¬†We are talking about mother-wisdom, the oldest source of life our universe knows. We are talking about that force of energy that flows through all created things, like water, keeping them alive, green, and prospering. We are talking about the tending, sheltering, conscious spirits that appear to us when we need help and direction in our lives. In spite of all the dire predictions and warnings about the future, I continue to believe that this mothering Life-Force, Dana, will shelter and direct us in ways of living that are sustainable, fulfilling, and meaningful for us as human beings.

To put this into Celtic terms, the Dananns are returning. The Shining Ones are once again calling us to wake up and look and listen to the real needs of the Earth and its communities of life. These are exciting times to be alive. Personally I am thrilled to be part of a network of people — shamans, mystics, artists, poets, teachers, healers — who are taking these challenges to heart, trying to be part of the solutions, not just the problems.

And so I heartily recommend to you The Spiral of Memory and Belonging and read for yourself Frank’s challenging account of the old Danann gods and goddesses, their place in our world today, and his inspiring activities and practices that can bring the dana life-force into your own life more abundantly. I think this book will give you the closest thing to the original instructions of the Celtic and pre-Celtic peoples, who are ancestors to so many of us.

I hope we can embrace¬†the concept of dana and explore the original instructions embedded in the old Celtic myths and teachings, and discover ritual and shamanic activities to deepen this Spirit of Life in us in preparation for the challenging times ahead. Then perhaps we will become “shining ones” ourselves, better able to keep alive the sacred light of life even in the midst of the mundane world that continues to grow darker and denser all the time.

How odd to be writing this! About one hundred years ago the Irish mystic George Russell (writing under his pen name A. E.) felt similar stirrings. He sensed “some unveiling about to take place. . . . (that) beings were looking in upon me . . . . saying to each other about us, ‘Soon they will awaken; soon they will come to us again’.” He saw the world as a tapestry whose every design “appeared to be the work of gods. Every flower was a word, a thought. The grass was speech; the trees were speech; the waters were speech; the winds were speech.” Lastly, he heard wondrous bells calling him “away, away into that wondrous underland whither, as legend relates, the Danann gods withdrew.” And then it dawned on him — they had not withdrawn totally and their “Golden Age was all about me, and it was we who had been blind to it, but that it had never passed away from the world.”

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